November 5, 2003
Richard Ramirez was a spineless, gutless punk who terrorized Los Angeles for five months in 1985. His frenzied nighttime murder spree of random targets was as senseless and pointless as his life.
by David Lohr
Richard Ramirez's random and inexplicable murder spree began on June 28, 1984, in Glassel Park, Calif., a small suburban community in Los Angeles. He parked his car down the street and quietly made his way up to a two-story apartment building. His eyes began scanning the area looking for an easy target. A heat wave was moving through the area, so he had little trouble finding an apartment with an open window. The open window he chose belonged to 79-year-old Jennie Vincow.
Murder was the farthest thing from his mind at the moment. He was more interested in stealing the woman's valuables to support his growing drug addiction. With gloved hands, he quietly removed the screen from the window and crawled inside. According to Philip Carlo's 1996 book, The Night Stalker, Ramirez immediately made his way to the bedroom and began looking through the drawers, careful not to make a sound. Nothing. There was not one thing of value for him there. He became enraged at the elderly woman sleeping on the bed and decided to take his anger out on her. He quietly removed his hunting knife from its sheath and made his way toward her bed. He stood over her momentarily and contemplated his next move. Killing was something new to him and he did not want to make any mistakes. He held the knife up high and quickly brought it down on her chest. She immediately awoke and began screaming for her life, but he ignored her cries and continued to stab her again and again. After he tired of stabbing her, he placed his hand over her mouth and with one quick flick of the knife slit her throat. It was suddenly over just as quickly as it began. The elderly woman was dead and her killer stood over her panting. The act had excited him beyond his expectations and the thrill of the kill aroused him sexually. He quickly disrobed and performed necrophilia on the corpse.
Later that day, Mrs. Vincow's son discovered the grisly scene and reported it to police. Investigators were stumped. There was no apparent motive for the murder and the suspect had left few clues behind.
Less than a year later, on the night of March 17, 1985, Ramirez struck again. Hiding in the shadows of a Rosemead condominium complex he waited and watched for a victim to appear. He did not have to wait long before spotting 20-year-old Maria Hernandez pulling into one of the driveways. As she stepped out of her car, Ramirez jumped out from the darkness and raised his gun. Maria pled for her life as she instinctively raised her hand to protect herself. Ramirez pulled the trigger. Maria fell to the ground and Ramirez stepped over her body and walked into her condo. But Maria was not dead. Amazingly, the bullet had deflected off the car keys she had been holding and she was only pretending to be dead. Upon entering the condo, Ramirez was taken off guard by the sight of Maria's roommate, 34-year-old Dayle Okazaki. Ramirez quickly raised his gun and fired a shot directly at her head. A single bullet entered her brain, killing the young woman instantly. Ramirez quickly fled, but in his hurry he dropped his baseball cap, with an AC/DC insignia. Maria, still badly shaken, described her assailant as tall, gaunt man with bulging eyes and widely spaced, rotten teeth. She also said she thought he might be Hispanic.
According to Clifford L. Linedecker's 1991 book, Night Stalker, Ramirez was angered by his foul up and waited less then an hour to strike again. He drove to the Monterey Park area and ambushed 30-year-old Tsai-Lian Yu. Ramirez drug the young woman out of her car and fired several shots in rapid succession. Afterward, he got into his own car and drove away just as quickly as he had appeared.
Less than two weeks later, on March 27, 1985, Ramirez broke into the home of 64-year-old Vincent Zazarra and his 44-year-old wife Maxine. Vincent was sleeping on the sofa when Ramirez snuck up on him and shot him point blank in the head. Vincent died almost immediately, however his wife was not so lucky. Ramirez shot her three times and then began to continuously stab her all over her body. When he tired of the motions, he slowed down and began carving designs into her flesh. Afterward, he ransacked the house, and then, before leaving, he carved out both of Maxine's eyes.
Carlo wrote that when investigators were summoned to the scene a few days later they discovered footprints in the flowerbed, which they photographed and casted. The bullets were later determined to have come from the same gun as the ones in previous attacks and investigators were now certain that they had a crazed serial killer on their hands.
The killer waited a little longer before striking again, but by April 14, 1985, he broke into the Monterey home of 65-year-old Harold Wu and his 56-year-old wife Jean. As Ramirez made his way towards the bedroom, he cocked his gun in anticipation. Chambering the bullet made a loud clicking noise, which immediately alerted Harold. As Ramirez entered the bedroom he noticed Harold reaching for his 9-millimeter pistol. Ramirez quickly raised his own gun and fired one shot, striking the man just above the upper lip. Ramirez went to fire a second round, but his gun jammed. He then used his gloved fists to beat Harold unconscious. Afterwards, he picked up the 9-millimeter pistol and set his sites on Jean, who was now awake and trembling. The elderly woman was unable to run away and Ramirez began to pummel the woman with his fists. After a few minutes he decided to have a look around and bound the elderly woman's hands together with thumb cuffs. Ramirez ransacked the home looking for valuables, but found nothing of great significance. The thrill of the crime had excited him, so he returned to the bedroom and violently raped Jean Wu. Afterwards, he kissed her and left the home with whatever belongings he could carry. Moments later, Harold came to and crawled to the telephone. He dialed 911 and when the operator answered he muttered, "Help, please help me," before passing out again.
Emergency personnel quickly arrived at the scene and began treating the elderly couple. Harold was in a dire state and Jean was in catatonic shock. At first they thought Harold was going to make it, but their best efforts were not enough to save him and he died during the trip to the hospital. Jean survived the attack, but was unable to tell investigators what had happened. Dark skinned man, bad teeth, and a black gun were about the only things they could get out of her. Once again footprints were discovered at the scene. The prints, along with the bullet, were later matched to those left behind at the other scenes. The Los Angeles Times dubbed the unknown killer "The Night Stalker."
On May 29, 1985, 83-year-old Malvia Keller and her invalid sister, 80-year-old Blanche Wolfe, were attacked in Keller's Monrovia home. Ramirez beat both women with a hammer and ransacked the home. Afterward, he took lipstick and drew a pentagram on Keller's inner thigh. He then drew a second one on the bedroom wall. Four days later a horrified gardener discovered the sisters and contacted the police. Keller survived, but Wolfe died soon thereafter. It was later revealed that Ramirez had tried to rape Keller during the attack.
On May 30, 1985, in Burbank, Ramirez attacked 41-year-old Ruth Wilson in her home. Linedecker wrote that after tying up the victim's 12-year-old son, Ramirez raped and sodomized her. "Don't look at me," he snarled. "If you look at me again, I'll shoot you." Afterward, he slashed her once with his knife and told her she was lucky. "I don't know why I'm letting you live," he whispered. He then let her son out of the closet and handcuffed them together. Ramirez left them there and later the young boy was able to get to a phone and call 911. When police later questioned Ruth she described her attacker as a tall Hispanic with long dark hair.
Just 10 years earlier Los Angeles had dealt with The Hillside Stranglers and now it was sheer panic all over again. The police department placed extra manpower in every area of the city. Sketched pictures of The Night Stalker were distributed throughout the region and police stopped and investigated numerous men who fit the bill. Residents began buying guns and hardware stores began selling out of locks and deadbolts. Nonetheless, Ramirez was not scared of being caught and felt that Satan himself was protecting him from danger.
On June 27, 1985, Ramirez raped a 6-year-old girl in Arcadia and the following day the body of 32-year-old Patty Elaine Higgins was found in her Arcadia home. Ramirez had beaten the woman within an inch of her life and then slit her throat. Afterwards he ransacked her home. Just five days later, on July 2, Ramirez struck again and murdered 75-year-old Mary Louise Cannon. Like Patty Higgins, she had been beaten, her throat slit, and the house ransacked.
Three days later, On July 5, Ramirez attacked 16-year-old Deidre Palmer in Arcadia. He savagely beat the young girl with a tire iron and left her for dead. Amazingly, she survived her injuries. Just two days later, the body of 61-year-old Joyce Lucille Nelson was found in her home in Monterey Park. Ramirez had bludgeoned her to death. Later that same night, in Monterey Park, Ramirez attacked 63-year-old Linda Fortuna. He attempted to rape her, but was unable to maintain an erection. Frustrated, he quickly ransacked her house and left without killing her.
On July 20, 1985, Ramirez broke into the Glendale home of 66-year old Maxson Kneiling and his wife Lela, also 66. Ramirez shot both of them in the head and mutilated their corpses. Just hours later Ramirez struck again. This time in Sun Valley, where he broke into the home of 32-year-old Chitat Assawahem and his wife Sakima, 29. Ramirez shot Chitat as he slept and then raped and beat his wife. Ramirez then tied up Sakima and gathered up $30,000 in cash and jewelry. He was not yet ready to leave though and turned his anger on the couple's eight-year-old son, whom he brutally sodomized before leaving.
Less than a month later, on Aug. 6, 1985, Ramirez broke into the Northridge home of 38-year-old Christopher Petersen and his wife, 27-year-old Virginia. Ramirez shot both of them in the head, but amazingly both survived. Mr. Petersen was a large man, and despite his injuries, he was able to chase the intruder away.
Ramirez waited just two days to strike again, this time in Diamond Bar, Calif. He broke into the home of 35-year-old Ahmed Zia and his wife, 28-year-old Suu Kyi. Ramirez quickly disposed of Ahmed with a bullet to the head and then raped and sodomized Suu Kyi.
The police were now facing a barrage of criticism from the public. The crimes were becoming more frequent and the cooling-off periods were becoming even shorter. With all the added publicity about his crimes, and the manhunt to find the killer, Ramirez began to panic and fled north to continue his murder spree.
On Aug. 24, 1985, Ramirez traveled to Mission Viejo, some 50 miles south of Los Angeles. According to Michael Newton, author of the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, he then broke into the home of 29-year-old Bill Carns and his fiancée, 27-year-old Inez Erickson. Ramirez shot Carns in the head and then proceeded to rape Erickson. Afterwards, he demanded she swear her love for Satan and then he tied her up and left. Erickson quickly worked herself free of her constraints and ran to the window just in time to see the assailant get into an orange colored car. She then called 911. Earlier that same night, a young man had noticed an orange Toyota circling the neighborhood. It struck him as suspicious and he wrote down the license plate number. The following day he contacted the police about the car.
When investigators ran the license plate, they learned that the car had recently been stolen. An APB was immediately put out and two days later the car was found abandoned in a seedy Los Angeles neighborhood. Police spent the next several days watching the car, but their suspect never came back for it. Later, as crime scene specialists and finger print technicians went over the car they came up with a single print on the rearview mirror. It took several hours for the computer to match the print, but it eventually identified the suspect as Ricardo "Richard" Leyva Ramirez. Finally the police knew the Night Stalker's identity. Now they had to find him.
On Aug. 30, 1985, an all-points bulletin was issued for Ramirez's arrest. By mid-afternoon, his face was plastered on newspapers and was shown throughout the day on television news reports. Ramirez stepped from a Greyhound bus, not knowing that everyone in the city was looking for him. When he walked into a liquor store a woman yelled, "It's him. It's the Stalker!" He quickly looked up as other customers rose from their seats, forcing Ramirez to flee. He was heading towards the Hispanic area of East Los Angeles. He ran for three miles and then tried to steal a getaway car. Nonetheless, the angry mob caught up with him and he was quickly surrounded. Four citizens grabbed and subdued him, while another began hitting him with a steel pipe. The police quickly raced to the scene. According to reports in the Los Angeles Times, as one of the officers went to handcuff him, Ramirez raised his hands and begged for his life. "Save me. Please. Thank God you're here. It's me," he cried out. "I'm the one you want. Save me before they kill me." In retrospect it seems odd that he would thank God for help, rather then Satan.
Following his capture, Ramirez, 26, was charged with 14 murders and 31 other felonies. A fifteenth murder in San Francisco also hung over his head, with the possibility of a trial in Orange County for rape and attempted murder. He had several medical examinations performed, but his records are currently unavailable. One anonymous source claimed that Ramirez suffered from a testosterone imbalance, which caused his brain to malfunction.
Richard Ramirez was born on Feb. 28, 1960, in El Paso, Tex., where he lived with his parents, Julian and Mercedes, along with three brothers and two sisters. His family was poor by most standards and throughout his childhood he looked up to his hardworking father and wanted to be just like him. Around the age of 12 Ramirez found a new mentor, his cousin Mike. A Vietnam veteran and ex-Green Beret, Mike had returned home with four medals pinned to his chest. He also brought with him a Polaroid odyssey of rape, torture, and mutilation, which undoubtedly had an immense impact on Ramirez's views of the world.
Mike enjoyed telling Ramirez about his time in Nam and began teaching him how to fight and kill. Mike's wife disapproved of his behavior and they frequently argued. The arguments gradually intensified and finally one day, in front of Ramirez, Mike shot his wife in the face. Mike went to trial for her murder, but pled temporary insanity. With his impressive war record, he was committed to a mental hospital.
Mike's influence on Ramirez was indelible and his interest in school vanished. In junior high school he failed ninth grade twice, and soon thereafter began his first criminal activities. He was arrested several times for burglary, each time being shipped off to a work program.
Throughout high school, Ramirez spent most of his time smoking pot and studying Satanism. He felt that Satan was protecting him and guiding him. His first formal arrest as an adult was for possession of marijuana, for which he was fined. He was arrested again several months later for the same offense. On his third arrest, for reckless driving, he avoided prison by agreeing to work with troubled youths and was ordered to be on probation for a period of three years. After his probation ended, Ramirez left El Paso and moved to California. Once there, he encountered minor run-ins with the law. He was often strung out on cocaine, LSD and PCP. In 1984, he was taken into custody and photographed while suspected of driving a stolen car. Little did he know at the time that this mug shot would be the one plastered all over Los Angeles that would lead to his arrest.
The process of trying Ramirez took four years, during which time he married a 41-year-old serial-killer groupie named Doreen Lioy. Three years later, on Sept. 20, 1989, Ramirez was found guilty on 43 counts: 13 murders and an assortment of charges including burglary, sodomy, and rape.
"Ramirez Guilty on All Night Stalker Murder Charges," boasted the headline of the Los Angeles Times. Less then two months later, on Nov. 7, Judge Michael A Tynan sentenced Ramirez to death.
Currently Ramirez waits on death row in California's San Quentin Prison, where he is scheduled to remain until he has exhausted all of his appeals.